The founder of the Connecticut Parents Union says she was fired from her job with the New Haven Public Schools’ Head Start program just one day after staging a rally at the Capitol with lightning-rod school reformer Michelle Rhee.
Gwen Samuel, the founder of the organization, said she received a letter from her employer, The Gesell Institute of Child Development, on March 15 telling her not to return to her part-time job leading workshops for parents of children enrolled in Head Start.
“We have been informed by New Haven Public Schools that your involvement with Head Start parents on a personal advocacy level is considered a conflict of interest and have been asked to remove you from the program,” wrote Marcy Guddemi, the Geselle Institute’s executive director. The position was funded by a grant through a contract with the New Haven Public Schools.
Samuel, a Meriden mom and outspoken proponent of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s proposal to reform teacher tenure, said the timing makes her believe it was retaliation for bringing the controversial former Washington, D.C. schools chancellor to Connecticut.
“What else could it be?” asked Samuel. “Why would this just come out of the blue?”
Guddemi declined to comment on her letter, saying she could not discuss personnel issues in public. New Haven Superintendent of Schools Reginald Mayo did not return a telephone call seeking comment.
Samuel said she has filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education and has asked the State Department of Education to look into the matter. She has suggested that the New Haven Federation of Teachers was behind her firing, but the union president insisted that is not the case.
“I have no idea who she is. I don’t know her,” NHFT President David Cicarella said Wednesday. He said even if he did, the union has nothing to do with hiring or firing decisions made by the school system.
“As union president, every breath and fiber of my being is to protect the rights of workers. The last thing I’d want to do is get someone fired,” Cicarella said. “That’s not who we are.”
Samuel organized the March 14 rally to support Malloy’s education reform bill and asked Rhee to speak. Rhee, whose grassroots organization StudentsFirst lobbies for school reform policies around the country, applauded Malloy’s “aggressive stance” on linking teacher pay to their performance in the classroom and described her experience putting her own children through the D.C. public school system while she was chancellor.
Rhee is credited with dramatically raising test scores, but teachers have characterized her approach as divisive and questions have been raised about testing irregularities under her leadership. She once appeared on the cover of Time magazine holding a broom because of her reputation for firing teachers.
On the day of the rally, the state’s largest teachers’ union released a statement suggesting that the public and news media should ignore Rhee.
“Rhee is recognized for divisive politics as evidenced by her short-lived tenure in Washington, D.C. Why should CT citizens want to import outsiders like Rhee, when there are so many solid ideas for education reform right here in our own state?” Mary Loftus-Levine, executive director of the Connecticut Education Association, said.
Cicarella, whose union is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, said that although he disagrees with Rhee on school reform, her appearance at the rally “really wasn’t that big of a deal for us.”
“We didn’t attend it. We didn’t send anyone there. The governor wasn’t even there,” he said. Malloy backed out of a planned appearance at the rally after learning Rhee was speaking.
Samuel said Wednesday that no one complained about her advocacy work until she appeared with Rhee. She said her employer knew about her work with the Connecticut Parents Union when she was hired for the $17-an-hour contract job as a workshop presenter last October. Her contract would have expired on June 28.
She said the 20-hour-a-week job involved going to Head Start schools and talking to parents about kindergarten readiness and the importance of reading to, and playing with, their children. She said she was honest about her advocacy work on her resume and she used the CTPU email address on all correspondences with her employer. Samuel said Guddemi even did a presentation on the importance of parental involvement to members of her organization on the CT Parent Union bus in December.
Samuel said she formed the parents union in January 2011 to give parents a greater voice in education policy issues. She said she believes her firing was “clearly an attempt to put parents in their place.”
“If they were going to fire me it should have been a long time ago,” Samuel said. “I’m not doing anything now that I wasn’t doing then.”